Brenda Erickson sat on an overturned pail at Rocky Acres Berry Farm in the hills above Bayfield, picking blueberries from one of her long, low rows on a cool and overcast morning.
The season is coming to a close as temperatures dip and days grow shorter, but Erickson had faith as she studied her plants that she'd get another week or so of berry-good picking — if the green berries mature. So far she's been lucky that they've plumped up nicely, she said, but it really depends on the weather.
Erickson took over her late father's 40-acre berry farm in 2009 and continues to cultivate 12 to 15 acres of strawberry, raspberry and blueberry fields. She keeps the farm operations simple, only selling fresh fruit without dabbling in such things as jams, jellies or T-shirts, she said.
Down the road the Hauser family — famous for their apple orchard — takes a different tack with their small berry operation. Their raspberry and blueberry patches barely exceed an acre, and the berries are picked to make jams. As the family does most of the work, they only grow what they can harvest and use themselves. Even then it's difficult to keep on top of labor-intensive picking chores.
"Sometimes we wonder why we plant so many," owner Fritz Hauser laughed.
Hauser's Superior View Farm actually started out with a large commercial strawberry-growing operation in the early 20th Century, but it fell by the wayside. Now any attempt to grow strawberries would interfere with the farm's perennial plant nursery business, which sells, by the way, berry plants for people who want to take a crack at cultivating their own backyard patch.
Grow your own
Hauser said if someone wanted to launch a backyard berry hobby, his plants come with a full explanation of their environmental and maintenance needs from soil to sun.
But Hauser also urged aspiring berry green thumbs to talk to Bayfield County UW-Extension ag agent Jason Fischbach, who stands ready to help landowners from plowing the ground to maintaining their hard-earned patch.
The first, most crucial step is testing the soil.
"Fruit is finicky," Fischbach said.
Strawberries love well-drained, sandy soil, but blueberries thrive where it's acidic, he said. The soil may need to be amended to suit the berry plant or have peat added to help retain moisture. Or gardeners may actually have to install raised beds, a garden container sitting on top of the ground and filled with suitable soil or compost.
"There's no one size fits all," Fischbach said.
With that accomplished, Fischbach recommended the landowner have a plan to manage deer or bird feasting incursions, depending on the berry.
Fischbach had helped Mike Berg, owner of Garage Mahal Orchards, first dip his toe into the Fruit Loop blueberry business about 16 years ago.
Berg, who fell in love with the people of Bayfield during his first visit in 1971, questioned how he could give something back to the community and saw the blueberry business as the answer.
Berg gave Fischbach and university scientists carte blanche to determine how to prep a blueberry operation and which varieties to plant on the 5-acre farm he started in 2005. The hybrid they recommended produces outstanding blueberries, he said.
"I credit them with having the brains behind my operation," Berg said.
Many commercial growers in the Fruit Loop had years of experience under their belt when they took over their farms and knew the toll picking berries and maintaining the plants can take.
The fifth generation of Hausers are learning the ropes at Superior View Farm, and Erickson, who grew up knee-deep in berries, helped on her dad's farm every summer.
Erickson said berries are high maintenance and some, such as blueberries, take years to mature. The gardener has to fertilize, mulch, water and keep munching insects at bay — all while monitoring their growth. Blueberry plants require frequent pruning, and strawberry plants will swiftly overrun a garden.
"It's like a weed," she said. "Once you get it going with the runners it just goes crazy."
She herself plows over her strawberry fields after two years of pickings. The thicker the plants, the smaller the berries, she said, and after two years it's almost impossible to keep out the weeds.
Erickson said that if she didn't have a berry farm but lived near the Fruit Loop, she'd forget about planting a patch.
"I would say take a day to go pick," she said.